Is Your Institution Ready for Branding?

April 26, 2017

Is Your Institution Ready for Branding?

tag award | brand strategy | creative design | higher education | higher education brand strategy | higher education branding | higher education marketing
Is Your Institution Ready for Branding?

As little as 15 years ago, you couldn’t use the “M word” on a college campus without getting booed off the podium. Marketing was seen as “smoke and mirrors,” and it was considered unseemly to “market” academe—the work should speak for itself.

Today, thankfully, marketing is a no-brainer. Of course you have to promote the institution’s good work in order to achieve awareness among prospective students and influencers. But over the years we’ve matured as higher ed marketing and communications professionals to understand that promotion is just one part of the bigger picture. For promotion to work well, there must be a strong underlying institutional brand to convey. And, like the “m word” before it, the “b word” today causes a lot of confusion and consternation on college and university campuses.

The difference is that most institutions want to jump on the “brandwagon.” The challenge is that there are as many notions of what branding is as there are people on your campus. At SimpsonScarborough, we are fortunate to have worked with hundreds of institutions on exploring, building, promoting, and refining their brands. After a decade of doing this, we can now pretty quickly predict whether a campus that wants to engage with us is really ready to undertake a branding process—and if the resulting work will be able to take hold and have an impact. If your institution is considering it, here are three big questions to ask to determine whether you’re ready to roll or if you might need to lay some groundwork first.

Is your president leading the effort?

This is the No. 1 question we ask potential clients. Not, is the president “supportive” or “on board” … but is she leading it. Branding cannot be “that thing that the marketing office is doing.” It must be a strategic institutional priority that the institution’s leader understands, desires, and owns—and she must be vocal in communicating that to faculty and administration.

Does your campus community use the words “brand” and “logo” interchangeably?

If so, you will likely need to do some education before entering into a comprehensive branding effort. A brand is not a logo, a tagline, or an advertising campaign. It is an exploration of the campus mission, culture, strengths, and distinctions as perceived by all of your audiences. The goal is to identify those aspects of the institution that are truly strong and valued internally, different or better than those your competitors offer, and desired by external audiences. You must know this before you can design logos and develop media campaigns.

Does your institution have an integrated, collaborative communications network?

The impact of a brand comes from communicating a consistent message over time. You need ambassadors in every part of the institution, both administrative and academic. If your campus is currently very siloed or even has friction among various comms components, you might consider working on repairing those relationships before starting a branding process. If there’s general goodwill that’s just not harnessed, however, a branding project can be the perfect opportunity to bring everyone together and start to more formally structure your network, for example giving it a name (as simple as “Campus Communicators Network”) and scheduling biannual or quarterly meetings or retreats that keep everyone connected and provide opportunities for branding updates, input, and training.

Tell Us What You Think

What have you learned through brand projects at your institution? How did you determine whether or not you were ready?

About The Author

Kristen Creighton is an Associate Vice President at SimpsonScarborough. She specializes in guiding institutions through the process of developing high-impact brands that are simple yet smart, authentic yet aspirational. Driven by a desire to eliminate the phrase “best-kept secret” from the higher-education marketing lexicon, she digs deep to find the consistent language, values, and stories that make up each institution’s distinctive personality.

Kristen began her career in higher education as Executive Editor of Currents Magazine at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, where she initiated the magazine’s coverage of integrated marketing and led its first-ever online reader survey. She went on to become the Creative Director at Carnegie Communications and then Vice President for Research & Brand Strategy at Mind Over Media before joining SimpsonScarborough. Her work for colleges and universities has won multiple awards from CASE and Higher Education Marketing Report.